Excerpt: The concerted effort to build a pop-culture juggernaut, from ‘The Birth of Korean Cool’ by Euny Hong

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South Korean superstar Psy.
South Korean superstar Psy.

Korea was not cool in 1985.

That was the year that my parents decided, after spending nearly 20 years in the United States, to move back to Seoul, South Korea — specifically, to Gangnam, the wealthy neighbourhood whose famed “style” was to be the subject of rapper Psy’s song.

I was 12 years old; my sisters were nine and seven, respectively. At the time, I strongly favoured the move. My early childhood in the Chicago suburb where we lived was full of corn, beef, milk, hay fever, and racists. It’s implausible, but sadly true, that eight-year-old boys would call me “Jap,” as if they were Marines during World War II checking trees for snipers. I would just put up with it; why explain that I was actually Korean, when in those days Korea was still linked to an unpopular war in which many American soldiers were killed? Whenever kids asked me, “Are you Chinese?” — which was often — I would invariably respond yes. My mother heard me doing this once and gave me hell for it. “Why didn’t you say you were Korean?” she asked. I was not doing that again, not after an incident in first grade in which a boy told me: “You’re lying. There is no such place.” I remember briefly wondering whether my parents had been bulls—ting me about where they came from.

I was eager to leave this life and embrace the new one: Korea was my Zion. I had read too many British novels about wretched children finding out they were actually of noble birth and I was expecting to be salaamed upon arriving at the Seoul airport.

Now, yes, South Korea is rich and increasingly futuristic. It’s easy to forget that in 1965, South Korea’s per capita GDP was less than that of Ghana, and even less than that of North Korea. As recently as the 1970s, North and South Korea’s GDP were neck and neck.

A Korean record label will spend five to seven years grooming a future K-pop star. This is why some Korean artists sign the 13-year contracts binding them to indentured servitude

Today, South Korea is the world’s 15th largest economy and Seoul resembles the type of space-age city that Arthur C. Clarke imagined in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Plans are underway to construct an “invisible” skyscraper near Seoul — one that will use cameras and LEDs to create the illusion from a distance that the building is not there. Every single subway car has two WiFi hotspots so that people can watch their morning TV shows on their Samsung Galaxy phones — benefiting from a superfast Internet connection that never gets interrupted even when the subway is going through tunnels or below water. Korea is widely considered one of the greatest economic miracles of the modern day.

What most of the world doesn’t know — or has forgotten — is the painful period between poverty and wealth. Within a matter of decades, South Korea went through changes that most wealthy nations took hundreds of years to achieve: social changes as radical as those brought about by the French Revolution and economic changes as radical as those brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Bridges, skyscrapers, and highways appeared seemingly out of nowhere; it was almost like watching a time-lapse video. Meanwhile, everyone was clamouring for their rights: women, students, the newly rich, the old aristocracy, labourers, white-collar workers. It was a cacophonous and chaotic time to live in Seoul, but it was also an amazing time. Few people can boast, as I can, that they saw Rome being built in a day.

Other countries have gone from rags to riches in the last century, but among these, only South Korea has the cheek to set its sights on becoming the world’s top exporter of popular culture.

South Korean soap operas, music, movies, video games, and junk food already dominate the Asian cultural scene. In fact, South Korea has been the tastemaker of Asia for over a decade, and its westward expansion is inevitable. You may not even realize that it is already underway.

You may have an iPhone, for example, but its microchips are made by Apple’s biggest competitor — the Korean electronics company Samsung.

The Korean wave of popular culture is called “Hallyu.” You should learn the word, since you’ll be seeing a lot of it. U.S. President Barack Obama referred to it during a March 2012 visit to South Korea, in the context of discussing the nation’s technical and pop culture innovations. He said: “It’s no wonder so many people around the world have caught the Korean Wave — Hallyu.”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Hallyu is the world’s biggest, fastest cultural paradigm shift in modern history.

How did Korea sneak up from behind?

Well, in 1994, when the United States and the United Kingdom were kicking and screaming in protest against converting from analogue to digital TV — some people even arguing that “this fascist government can’t force me to buy a new TV” — Korea was busy wiring the entire country for Internet broadband with government funds, just like building a national highway or railway system. This new mode of transport would be everything that Korea wasn’t: uninhibited, multilingual, indifferent to class and hierarchy, not boxed in by ocean on three sides and an aggressive totalitarian state on the fourth side, and ready to risk being barraged by uncensored and possibly seditious material. Openness was not an inherently Korean trait: 19th-century explorers from the West dubbed it the Hermit Kingdom. But what enticed the nation was not so much the virtual cargo that these new channels would bring in; it was what Korea was planning to send out to the world that really mattered.

Did South Koreans know that “Gangnam Style” would be the song that put K-pop on the map? Of course not. But they knew it would happen eventually. They had been setting up the mechanism for pop culture domination since the dawn of the World Wide Web in the 1990s.

One might well ask, why focus on pop culture when this area has been the near-
exclusive domain of the United States for a century? Because South Korea is developing its soft power.

“Soft power,” a term coined in 1990 by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, is the intangible power a country wields through its image rather than through force. Hard power is military might or economic coercion. Soft power, on the other hand, is how the United States got the world to buy its Marlboro Reds and Levi’s jeans: by peddling a desirable image. By peddling cool.

It wasn’t the United States’ tank technology or its impressive show of muscle in invading Grenada that made the kids in communist Yugoslavia want to pay two months’ wages for black market Levi’s 501 jeans. It was James Dean.

Now, Korea wants to have this kind of cultural cachet — even in the West — but it’s not relying on “Gangnam Style” and K-pop. I don’t think that Koreans, if they’re being honest with themselves, believe their music will take up significant market share in the United States or Western Europe. Instead, it’s about getting the crucial but still dormant third-world market hooked on Korean pop culture — eastern Europe, the Arab nations, and soon, Africa. The addiction has already begun; in Iran, the Korean historical costume drama The Jewel in the Palace is so popular that Iranians have reportedly begun organizing their mealtimes so as not to interfere with the show’s broadcast time.

The South Korean government has made the Korean Wave the nation’s No. 1 priority

Right now, the third-world countries are too poor for most Western nations to care about. This is where Korea has a peculiar, unreproducible advantage over every single other nation that has been a global pop culture power: It was once a third-world country. Thus Korea understands the stages of other nations’ development; it has carefully studied these cultures to determine what kinds of “K-culture” products would be most favoured there. And Korean economists are hard at work gauging the rate at which these nations will become wealthier and have more purchasing power. You can bet that once the citizens of these countries are able to afford to buy mobile phones and washing machines, they’ll buy Korean brands. Why? They’re already hooked on Korea the Brand.

If this sounds like a national campaign, that’s because it is. The South Korean government has made the Korean Wave the nation’s No. 1 priority.

Korea has multiple five-year plans, the likes of which most democratic and capitalist countries have never seen. The government felt that spreading Korean culture worldwide was dependent on Internet ubiquity, so they subsidized Internet access for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. Currently, the government is wiring every single household with a 1 gigabit-per-second connection — which would make it 200 times faster than the average Internet connection in the United States. South Korea learned from having to rebuild its country after the Korean War (1950–1953) that if you’re going to make change, the change has to be drastic, it has to be fast, and it has to be for everyone. Email is useless if only a few people have it.

And it’s not just the government who has five-year plans; private Korean enterprises have them, too. A Korean record label will spend five to seven years grooming a future K-pop star. This is why some Korean artists sign the 13-year contracts binding them to indentured servitude; the first half of that period is spent on training, and the company can’t reap the rewards of its investment unless the artist stays on past the incubation period.

The South Korean economy is a paradox: It is utterly cap- italist, yet at the same time it is in some ways still a command economy. From the earliest days of its independence from Japanese rule following World War II, the South Korean government has intervened in private industry.

In addition to building a high-tech Internet infrastructure, South Korea is one of only a handful of countries whose government pours its own money into investing in its nation’s start-ups. In 2012, government funds constituted over 25% of all venture capital money disbursed in Korea. A mind-boggling one-third of venture capital in Korea is spent on the entertainment industry — more than on any other sector.

And here’s another five-year plan: In 2009, when the South Korean record industry was suffering a loss in revenue because of illegal music downloads, the government allocated $91-million to rescue K-pop. The plan included building a K-pop centre with a 3,000-seat concert hall (a work in progress) and regulating the nation’s noraebangs — karaoke rooms — to make sure the owners are paying royalties for all the songs in their machines. Most countries would never stand for using public funds to audit karaoke rooms.

It’s an idea so ridiculous that only South Korea would think of it.

The nation has decided that the 21st century will be Korea’s century, just as the 20th century was America’s century. And it’s not enough for Korea to make semiconductors and cars; it has to be cool as well. Of course, Korea is upending the widely held belief that trying too hard to be cool makes you uncool.

Perhaps the person who best expressed Korea’s fearlessness, ambition, and never-ending gall was Korean music mogul Jin-young Park (head of the record label JYP.) When asked by Western music executives, “Where are you from?” he would reply cryptically, “I am from the future.”

Welcome to Korea.

Welcome to the future.

“Introduction” excerpt from The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong. The Birth of Korean Cool copyright © 2014 by Euny Hong. The trade paperback original will publish Aug. 5, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.

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